When meeting Ben Law on the set of season 2 of The Family Law, the first thing you notice about him is just how happy he is. But what reason would he have to be otherwise? He is on the set of the second season of a TV show that he has helped create and write, based on his already well-received memoir. Also, the footage from the shoot looks like everything is going incredibly well. Ben Law is living the dream of many writers.
At this stage in the production, all of the scripts are written and Law is relatively relaxed. He’s friendly and more than happy to get involved where he can around the production which is today shooting on a set in Brisbane.
The scene currently being shot is inside an Asian grocery store that family patriarch Danny Law is set to open, but through the magic of television, we're not on the Sunshine Coast where the show is actually set, but rather in an inner-city Brisbane suburb where the production has taken over a disused building previously used for Queensland Government print services.
Before speaking with me, Ben Law is involved in some promotion for The Family Law, participating in a Facebook Live event where he showed off the grocery store set and interviewed some of the shows cast members.
While waiting for Ben to finish, I am tapped on the arm by Trystan Go, the young actor who portrays 'Benjamin Law' on the show. It's his birthday today and he's offering me a chocolate from a basket of sweets that he's handing around to people on the set. I'm struck by just how polite and nice he is, but that seems to be the case with everybody on the set. It's almost as if the enthusiasm of Ben Law has permeated through the entire set.
Soon, Law has concluded the Facebook Live and wanders over to have a chat about the production.
Watching you doing that Facebook Live then showed just how relaxed and well-presented you are in front of the camera. Would you ever want to do something actually on TV, like a late night chat show?
Oh my God - that stuff would be hilarious. Yeah, put Asian Rove on the TV. You are right though, the Breakfast slots are all filled. They don’t have that big an audience. I’ve always been baffled as to why Breakfast TV is so competitive when it’s like "Guys, start a really good late night show and you have a monopoly on it because no one else is there”. It’s not like a dream of mine, but I really do like a chat.
When I finish doing a chat at something like the Sydney or Melbourne Writers Festival, people will mention it and I’m just like “Show me the money and I’ll do it”, but it’s not like a life ambition. I really like good late night shows though.
We are here on the set of season 2 of The Family Law, which was based on your own memoirs. Are you still taking much from your life, or has the show now diverted too much?
It’s probably the same mission statement as series one, which is: Yes, we’re going to draw on a lot of specifics from my own life that are conveyed in the book as well, but also, we’re not making a documentary. We’re making a comedy. The main objective for us is an emotional truth. David Hare the playwright and screenwriter has a really great saying, when he’s working on an adaptation: “The only way you can achieve fidelity to the text is through rampant promiscuity”. I think that’s what we’re doing here as well.
When we’re in the writers room, when it’s Sophie Miller - the showrunner, Kirsty Fisher - my co-writer, and script producer Lawrence Leung, we’re often talking about our own lives as well. After series one, which is all about divorce and separation, with series two we’re coming into what I call “The Laws have reached their post-nuclear stage”. They’re not a nuclear family, they’re a post-nuclear family and as with all post-nuclear situations there is often fall-out. That’s something I draw from my own life, but those people in the room with me, who are plotting the show together, we all have family histories that we draw on.
Your real-life Dad, did he open a supermarket as well?
He did. I was in grade 10 when he opened what is called ‘Asian Alley’ in series two. It was just called the Asian Markets in real life. That was in 1997. He slogged it out. It was a really hard business to run. We see Danny in the show discovering how hard it is to start a small business from the ground up. It’s not always smooth sailing, as celebratory and festive as it might be to begin with.
Is it harder opening an Asian supermarket on the Sunshine Coast?
Yeah. To give an example of how mono-cultural the Sunshine Coast experience could be, it’s much more multicultural now, but when I was growing up at the school that I went to, I was one of three Asian kids in a year level of nearly 100. Then in high school there were maybe five or six Asian kids in a year-level of about 250. There wasn’t as big a demand for Asian groceries as I think my Dad would have hoped.
The show deals with a character that is kind of based on you. It’s a young man who is possibly finding his sexuality at this age. How is that represented in season two?
We always wanted the audience to know that Ben was gay, even if Ben, the character, didn’t. At the same time, especially for series one and, to an extent, series two, we didn’t want to make it a plot point yet. It’s there. It’s pretty obvious when Ben is peering through a telescope in series one. There’s every opportunity to perve on the hot female neighbour who is undoing her bra, but it swings down to Klaus doing endless reps with the weights downstairs in the garage in a sort-of American Beauty moment. Similarly there are points in series two where the audience probably gets it before Ben does. But as Ben gets older, as well, those feelings will evolve. It’s still not a centre-point of the show, but we don’t want to disregard it either because it’s going to be a central part of who Ben is and becomes.
Marieke Hardy, who was a key creative voice in season one, was not on board as a writer for season 2. How did that change things?
She is a very busy, in-demand woman. But it’s kind of great, because with series one especially, we inherited the Laid brains trust, because Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher co-wrote and co-created Laid for the ABC, which I still think was one of my favourite comedies to come out of that period. To have both of those creative minds in the room for series one was so, so fantastic. They got the show straight away. This series Kirsty Fisher could remain with us, which is so great. In a way she has become one of the co-writers of the show as well as the Script Producer as well. So, we’ve still got that Laid voice even though we can’t get Marieke this time.
Even in the series two iteration of the writers room, there are all of these different elements that complement each other. Lawrence Leung brings a lot of heart. Kirsty Fisher brings so much emotional depth, but also logic as well. She will say “This doesn’t make sense. This would make sense if you were in *this* situation”. Sophie Miller just has the vision. I provide really bad jokes, half of which don’t work. And Julie Eckersley who is our producer, who is in the room as well, has an acting background. So, when we can’t understand a scene, she gets up out of her chair to act it out.
It’s a pretty dynamic room.
Do you have the TV bug now? Will the next narrative story you want to craft be TV or a book?
Maybe neither, actually. I’ve got an idea for what I want to do next. I’ve got a few hunches what I want to do next. I want to work in TV for as long as I can. If this got series three up, I would be so stoked. I have worked on a few other TV shows since. I worked as an Associate Producer and Researcher for Deep Water and have worked on another project in the interim as well. I really love television, but in terms of my next project, I think it might be neither of them.
Are any of the characters difficult to write for?
I don’t find any of the core characters difficult to write too much. There is always the balance of striking up comedy, but making sure they’re not being laughed at and that it’s not just a cheap sitcom punchline. It’s got to come from character or the joke doesn’t work. Sophie, especially, is always on the lookout for that sort of stuff. When a joke works, the whole room laughs because it feels right.
The new characters… Any new character, of which we probably have half a dozen this time around, they’re always hard to write because it takes a few drafts to get their voice because you are crafting a whole new person from scratch. We’ve plotted out who they are, they’ve all got a back story. We know their history as well. But them sometimes to find their voice is a difficult thing.
For instance, Wayne’s parents Garry and Loraine - they’re more regional Queensland stock. They are called in this series, "the reason One Nation is back". [Laughs]. At the same time, it was important for us that they weren’t just one dimensional caricatures as well, because that’s not the TV show we want to write. So, it took a while to find that voice, while still making sure they are funny.
Is it difficult to convey the Queensland state of mind in the writers room?
It is different, but I feel like Queensland is that distilled version of a lot of Australian experiences and childhoods. The heat that Queensland has in a summer is a heat that most Australians feel in summer, but is racked up just a bit higher and turn the humidity right up. That kind of classic Australian experience people understand. There’s some vernacular that I really insist on as the sole Queenslander in the writers room. For instance we were talking about swimming outfits. I was like “They are ‘togs’. I don’t care if anybody else doesn’t understand that. It’s set in Queensland, they have to be called ‘togs’. There are a few Queensland and, even sometimes specifically, Sunshine Coast references that I insist on keeping in there.
How strong of an ongoing story does The Family Law have? Can it last beyond another season?
I can see it going beyond season three. Absolutely. Because we’ve established this family, even though series one and two are looking at the anatomy of a divorce and the aftermath of that, we always talk about what series three and beyond could potentially be. Sophie, Kirsty, and I often have those three-way conversations about things that “would probably be a season three thing”. You can follow this family everywhere. Even the book that I wrote originally in 2010... that spans from the 1940s and 1950s in my Dads story, right up until my mid-20s, when I finished writing the book as well. There is a lot of family story. When you know a family well-enough on screen, there’s every opportunity for them to evolve and explore different things and subject matters.
Do you see a point of following Ben beyond the family unit as he goes off to uni?
It’s funny. That foreshadows something we explore in series two, because one of the big questions being asked is “as all of these characters chase their dreams, with Danny opening a new store, Benjamin has his constant dream/delusions of becoming either middle school Captain or a famous actor, and Jenny also tries to figure out what her dream is. Often we see these characters going at it alone as well, trying to see how far they can push their own hopes and dreams beyond their family unit. How they define themselves outside of family?" That’s something we’re exploring already.
In the first series there is a scene with Ben speaking to Aunty Maisy and Daisy, Ben tries talking to them badly in Cantonese. Does that come from yourself?
Oh yeah. I had the most mortifying experience of SBS Cantonese Radio interviewing me. I said “I’d need some prep, but if you give me the weekend I could do the interview if I can prepare my answers.” Get me into the studio and it literally sounds like I’ve had some sort of accident on air. Anyone who could speak Cantonese contacted me afterwards and said "Oh dude, it sounded like you had a medical emergency”. Ben’s limited Cantonese also comes from my limited Cantonese. If you see me speak with my grandma, there is a lot of gesturing to compensate for my lack of vocabulary.
Do you find yourself getting closer to your culture the older you get?
To an extent, yeah. But to another extent no. It depends on what you mean by culture. As time goes on, I think there is a distinctive Chinese Australian culture that is neither Chinese nor Australian, but also both at the same time. Our executive producer Debbie Lee and Tony Ayres don’t really speak Chinese, yet we share a lot of overlapping family history of migration and family tension, and those cultural reference points we all get from our very hybrid identity. It’s neither Chinese, nor Australian solely. It’s both at the same time. I feel like, as time goes on, that’s a legitimate way of looking at our culture as well.
One last thing - I have to ask: You cameo in today's supermarket scene. Are you playing the same role as your cameo in the first season in the Chinese restaurant?
I think there’s continuity between the two. [Laughs]. Our Producer, Julie Eckersley, had a significant cameo in season one as a woman we call ‘Bratwurst Lady’ where she took a sample of bratwurst and when listening to Benjamin’s story about his broken home, became really invested in his emotional journey. This time she has a speaking role. Her role is ‘Sriracha Woman’. She wants chilli sauce. We’ve had a lot of discussion whether that is the same character. I think she is and her motivation is exploring foods outside of the norm. My role is similar to Bratwurst Lady - I am either seeking out the ingredients of food or eating food. It’s a very complex role.
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The Family Law airs on SBS every Thursday night at 8:30pm. New episodes and the entire first season are streaming now via SBS On Demand: